Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Push the Sky Away
(Bad Seed Ltd.)
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Nick Cave’s default setting is that of a bruiser. As frontman of Australian post-punks the Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party, he barked and slithered his way through first-person murder fantasies and erotic meta-fiction, most infamously creating a stripper persona for himself, described as a “fat little insect.” Not that his creep-outs and slasher fic ended there; the earliest of his recordings with the Bad Seeds remain some of the most harrowing material of his career, appearance in “Wings Of Desire” notwithstanding. Yet for how pervasive Cave’s darkest tendencies are, it’s easy to forget just how dapper, romantic and charming the guy is when he dims the lights and drops the volume.
For the past five years or so, Cave has placed extra emphasis on his mustachioed evil-twin self in scuzzy side project Grinderman and the noisier bombast of 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! So for Cave to arrive, clean-shaven (though the same can’t be said of wooly bandmate Warren Ellis) and bearing a full-length set almost entirely comprising ballads comes not only as a bit of a surprise, but a most welcome change of pace – namely, a return to the stately elegance that made previous albums such as No More Shall We Part and Let Love In so unforgettably haunting.
On Push The Sky Away, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 15th album, the band – currently composed of Cave, Ellis, Martyn Casey, Jim Sclavunos, Thomas Wylder and Conway Savage – dials back the volume and the tempo by a considerable margin. Yet for an album so ballad-heavy, there’s a great sense of turmoil and menace bubbling up just underneath the surface. Leadoff track “We No Who U R” begins gently and prettily enough, bearing a melancholy melody that’s at once catchy and vaguely unsettling. But it’s the unsettling part that grows more palpable once Cave arrives at the closing refrain: “We know who you are and we know where you live/ and we know there’s no need to forgive.”
More than a few moments arise in which Cave & Co. threaten to bolt back into punk rock mode, wallpapering their dirges with some particularly ominous production, though on Push The Sky Away, the Bad Seeds never opt for seething rage when ominous chills will do. The opening of “We Real Cool” pounds with deep and dirty bass vibrations, but what follows is an agonizingly beautiful ballad, adorned with ghostly twinkles of piano and eerie string flourishes. The band pulls a similar trick on “Water’s Edge,” but its menacing low-end throb drives the song not toward elegance or restraint, but rather into a tense and chaotic arrangement that’s wound up tight enough to explode at any moment, yet never quite reaches the point of detonation.
True to Cave’s famously complex and poetic lyrical style, the songs on Push The Sky Away are rich in vivid, dreamlike imagery, sometimes playful, sometimes terrifying, and occasionally self-referential – “Jubilee Street” is followed, a few tracks later, by a track titled “Finishing Jubilee Street,” which details a surreal turn of events that are supposed to have occurred after Cave finished the song in question. “Water’s Edge” is flecked with carefree imagery of “girls shaking their asses.” Yet “Higgs Boson Blues” is an odyssey unto itself, a noir road movie in which Cave takes inventory of a grotesque series of sites on his way to Geneva. He spies “Robert Johnson with a 10-dollar guitar strapped to his back, lookin’ for a tune,” who shortly meets his fate with his demonic business partner. Only a couple minutes later does Cave observe, “Hannah Montana does the African savanna.”
The absurdity and terror that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have so often courted aren’t absent on Push The Sky Away. They’re just muted, and rendered all the more seductive via lush arrangements and Cave’s crooning baritone. That it doesn’t throttle or abrade makes this particular shade of brooding that much more enchanting, but that shouldn’t seem like such a shock. After all, he’s done this sort of thing before.